Beijing’s abrupt dismantling of zero-Covid checks has been welcomed by economists, even as the country braces for the human impact of letting the disease spread through a vulnerable population.
The leaders’ abrupt reversal in how they are handling the pandemic appears to have been sparked by protests against the controls that began last month, a nationwide display of discontent on a scale China has not seen in decades.
But the unrest came after growing concern over the impact of the lockdown and regular severe lockdowns on the country’s economy.
China has been an engine of regional growth for the past century. However, this year it is expected to lag behind its neighbors for the first time since 1990, with disastrous consequences for its population.
Nearly one in five young people in cities is unemployed. Small and medium-sized businesses have been particularly hard hit by the uncertainty and impact of unpredictable and often long-lasting closures of entire cities.
But hardly anyone was exempted. The founder of Foxconn, a key supplier to Apple, had warned Beijing that the controls were threatening China’s place in the global supply chain, the the wall street journal reported.
The private letter was sent last month, when disgruntled workers protested at the company’s factories, and served as ammunition for health officials and advisers who wanted to open the country to the world again.
Other countries that had pursued zero Covid policies at the start of the pandemic, from Australia to South Korea, have cautiously reopened since vaccines and antiviral treatments became more widely available.
IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva hailed the “decisive” steps by the Chinese authorities to “recalibrate Covid policies”, and said they could boost the regional international economy.
“It can be very good for the Chinese people and the economy, but also for Asia and the global economy,” she said after a summit in the east Chinese city of Huangshan. . Premier Li Keqiang, who moderated the discussions, had visibly abandoned masks and social distancing.
On social media, public information videos showed smiling men and women taking off the mandatory mask for years.
It was a whiplash reversal after years of messages that the only way to stay safe was to avoid Covid, through extreme lockdown measures if necessary. For years, an increasingly ferocious control system has kept increasingly infectious disease strains at bay. Medical experts say it was a wasted window of opportunity to protect the population and prepare the healthcare system for a wave of sick patients.
Georgieva also called for more vaccinations and a rapid expansion of medical treatment options, to prepare for the wave of infections that will inevitably follow the opening.
“This [end to zero-Covid] can create better momentum to revive growth in China, especially if combined with broader vaccinations, provision of antiviral treatments and increased health care capacity.
The big challenge facing leaders now is whether they can limit the number of cases and deaths. China is an aging country, with vaccination and booster rates far behind what is needed to limit serious illness.
Only 40% of people over 80, who are particularly vulnerable, have received their reminders. And almost all will have received the locally developed vaccine, which is less effective and less durable than Western alternatives.
China sought the technology to produce mRNA vaccines, but refused to buy or import them. In addition to the risks of a rapidly spreading wave of cases, there is almost no natural immunity, as most people have never been exposed to Covid.
Between 1.3 and 2.1 million lives could be at risk, according to a study by health analytics firm Airfinity. He based models on the impact of an outbreak earlier this year in Hong Kong, which also has an elderly population and low vaccination rates.
Letting the disease spread in the early winter in the northern hemisphere, when other respiratory diseases are circulating and people are crowding indoors, increases the risks.
These factors could mean a bumpy road for China. If health services are overwhelmed, they may have to resort to the “roller coaster” of temporary shutdowns that most Western countries have endured until they have increased vaccination rates.
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